Feeling Our Way Along in the Dark: An Interview with Aaron Teel

[Aaron Teel’s The Girl in the Woods appeared in Sundog Lit Issue One]

The Girl in the Woods is so different than your stories in Shampoo Horns. What inspired it? What was the germ to write it? 

I wrote that piece just for Sundog and, unconsciously, I guess I interpreted the ‘scorched earth’ thing somewhat literally- I’m pretty simple minded when it comes down to it. So I set out to write something strongly grounded in a particular landscape. That was the germ, I guess. That one came about really quickly as well, which is unusual for me. Crushing fireflies is something I did when I was a kid. I don’t know where the rest of it came from, content wise. It’s like trying to dissect a dream. You recognize bits and pieces of it from your life, or from other people’s lives. The first line just kind of formed in my mind, which is usually how it works. First lines are important. I’ll work out the rhythm and cadence of that first line, the structure of it, before I ever sit down. The fist line leads onto the second, and so on, until the end. That part of the process is a mystery to me. I can talk about craft all day, but I can’t really speak to where the meat of it comes from. I’m not sure that part of it can really be taught, either, which is a whole other can of worms.

The image of the smeared-all-over firefly viscera is so central to the story and so perfect. It gives the whole thing a bit of a fairytale presence, I think. The girl is even mentioned as a “storybook queen.” Were you going for a fairytale in a very short space? 

Well, it’s not a fairy tale for the girl in the woods. From her perspective the whole experience is pretty horrific. But yeah, for the boy, for a few fleeting moments, he definitely thinks it’s going to turn out that way. I’m interested in the way we put the pieces together when we’re kids- the way we take the half-formed mess our parents give us and mix it with our own experiences. Feeling our way along in the dark.

I mentioned that this story was so different from Shampoo Horns. That collection, I believe, started out as mostly nonfiction, correct? And sort of became fiction? How did that transformation come about? What made you make the change? 

Yeah, the first few pieces were written as memoir, or creative nonfiction, and were published that way in 2006 and 2007, but I hit a wall with it after that and ended up putting it away for a long time. When I came back to it, I realized it needed a central symbolic event to hold it together and for all the other pieces to spin around. A tornado was kind of an obvious choice. Also, I realized I just wasn’t that interested in writing about myself in a strict memoir setting. It’s still autobiographical to a degree, the way anything is.

Give us some of your favorite things right now: books, movies, plants, chewing gum, music, whatever. 

Girls. The HBO show, not the band, although I quite like that band as well. Also, actual girls I like a lot. And when I say girls I mean women, of course. I still call them girls though, and I still think of myself as a boy. More worm cans. So, I guess my answer is Girls, Girls, girls. Not necessarily in that order.

What are you working on now? I read elsewhere – in another interview – that you’re working on another collection with these characters. Is that still on? 

Not the characters from Shampoo Horns, no. I don’t think I can revisit that material for a while, but a few of the stories from the collection I’ve been working on since finalizing that book have been published in various places. “Clichés in Smokelong Quarterly, “How to Disappear” in Monkeybicycle, and “Halle Berry” in Matter Press are all part of that and feature the same characters. It’s still on for now, but I’ve been breaking a cardinal rule of mine by talking about it. I never talk about things I’m doing until they’re actually coming out. A lot of my friends, people I’ve know for years, didn’t know anything about this part of my life until the Shampoo Horns thing happened.

The election’s coming up in a week – less than a week. Who’s the one President you’d want to have a drink with? Who’s the one you’d want to arm wrestle? 

Teddy Roosevelt would be fun to drink with, I imagine. He was a badass and he read poetry. He was the Hemingway of presidents. I guess I’d arm-wrestle Madison, but not for any political reasons. I just think I could take him.

Do you have any odd writing habits/rituals? 

Definitely, but I’m not telling you what they are. If you talk about them they lose their power.

What are you reading right now? 

This sounds like a lie, but I’m actually reading Infinite Jest at the moment. I’ve been putting it off for years but I’ve kind of been on this epic book bender for a while now, only reading things that are a thousand plus pages, which is ironic given the emphasis on compression in my own work. I’ve always been conflicted about David Foster Wallace. I knew reading Infinite Jest would only make it worse, which it has.

Write a one sentence story inspired by The Girl in the Woods. Read it and write something from it, just whatever comes to your brain. 

Daddy beat a boy in the woods half to death.

Spider-Man or Batman? (You’re being graded)

Batman, by every conceivable measure. I grew up reading both, and I like Spider-Man all right, but he loses points for having one of the lamest origin stories ever, and powers that don’t make any sense. Even as a kid, it bothered me that he stuck to walls through his suit and boots. And spidey sense? Do spiders have a psychic ability to sense danger I’m not aware of? Lame. I don’t even want to get into the mechanics of how he gets around. The whole thing is ridiculous. I’ve always found Marvel Comics overrated in general- the pandering formula of skinny nerds getting bit by radioactive spiders, taking super serums, and getting zapped by gamma rays. The mutant thing was kind of interesting, I guess. Batman has a better costume, better villains. He’s complex and conflicted and kind of a lunatic. It’s a great story.

I hope you don’t tag this with Marvel Comics and leave it open to comments. It could get ugly.


Aaron Teel is the author of Shampoo Horns, winner of the Sixth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Award. His work has appeared in Tin HouseSmokelong QuarterlyMonkeybicycleMatter Press, Brevity MagazineNorth Texas Review, and Side B Magazine, among others. He teaches Language Arts and English as a Second Language and is a workshop instructor for Badgerdog Literary Publising in Austin, TX.

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